The cult of Lionel Messi: from the pitch, to Buenos Aires, to the pilgrims of Doha


To mark the occasion of Lionel Messi’s 1,000th senior match — the small matter of a World Cup last 16 clash with Australia — The Athletic sought to take in the match among those who love him most, his global legion of fans (and that includes his team-mates).

James Horncastle watched the on-pitch action at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, Sam Lee mingled with Argentina fans in the nation’s capital city of Buenos Aires, and Jay Harris chatted with those Messi lovers from across the globe who have made the pilgrimage to Doha, as Argentina’s No 1o once again made the difference for his team…

Oh the pitch at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium

Lionel Messi could have been in the stands. He rhythmically threw his hands up in the air and sang with the fans behind the goal, as if he were one of them at the Ahmad Bin Ali stadium, a smile breaking through his red beard.  After a fortnight of carrying the cross on his shoulders, Argentina’s messiah appeared ecstatic and unburdened. He spent a long time after the final whistle communing with his teammates and his people. The players doused each other in water, bouncing arm-in-arm, joining the fans in concert.

Watching Messi take in the moment, rejoice, savour and commune with his people in this his last World Cup stirred the soul. “I know the whole of Argentina would like to be here,” Messi said. “But it’s not possible.” Still it feels like the whole of Argentina is in Doha, here on a pilgrimage to follow Messi in his pursuit, their pursuit of the tercera, a third World Cup for this nation of 45m people.

The hold Messi has on the fans manifests itself in a trance-like rumbling chorus, a euphoric cacophony. All the while he performs in silence, a mime artist whose every move has a tremendous rippling effect. It courses through everyone in attendance. In the 1,000th game of his career, Messi made what felt like 1,000 gestures, his teammates reverentially following orders as if they were written on a stone tablet, commandments passed down from El Diez (the 10), Argentinian for El Dio (God).

Argentina fans look to Messi for inspiration (Photo: Getty)

To bear witness to Messi in person is to see all the things you don’t see on TV. The camera isn’t always trained on him and misses moments of quiet leadership, the subtle hold he has on players, all of them disciples. Messi conducts. He does not need the ball as a baton. Maybe it’s his Italian ancestry, traced back to Recanati, that lies behind the furtive hand signals, the fleeting looks surreptitiously directing Argentina’s play. Messi points out a pass for Enzo Fernandez to play to Alexis Mac Allister. He motions to Rodrigo De Paul to sit tight rather than press Australia’s defence. A wave indicates where he wants a throw-in to go.

Messi is constantly organising. He reconfigures Argentina’s play like Tom Cruise at the screen in Minority Report. The bedlam around him, the rise and fall in the music booming out of 40,000 human speakers does not distract or disengage his focus. He is able to zone it out, quiet his mind, and follow and dictate the rhythm of the game instead.

Imagine what must it have been like to be an Australia player in that atmosphere?

“We really worked hard not to be in awe of him,” their coach Graham Arnold said. Arnold played against Diego Maradona and could empathise with what his players were going through. It’s hard to play Argentina and concentrate exclusively on the game. The crowd does not allow you to settle and reminds you over and over again, in song, of the presence of Messi even at times when he is on the periphery. “It’s hard to keep the best player that’s ever played the game out of the game,” said Australia defender Milos Degenek. “He needs half a meter, you give him half a meter and he scores a goal.”

When Degenek and his teammates struggled to get an Argentina free-kick clear, the sudden scramble to reposition themselves was enough for Messi to make his mark. The speed of his pass into Mac Allister quickened the pace of play, Messi ran into the box, checked his run and as Mac Allister played a through ball into Nicolas Otamendi, the centre-back still up after the corner, Messi took it off his toes and placed it beyond Mat Ryan. It was the 789th goal of career, his ninth at a World Cup, just one away from the record Gabriel Batistuta holds for Argentina.

Messi raised a clenched fist in celebration. He wiped his brow on a shirt sleeve and adjusted his captain’s armband. Then the maestro resumed orchestrating. Messi beckoned Julian Alvarez over to the left for a chat, signalled at Emiliano Martinez to boot it long to him and minutes later Alvarez was in the right place at the right time to pounce on a goalkeeping mistake to score the winner.

Messi leads the celebrations as Argentina beat Australia (Photo: Getty)

Australia came back and almost forced the game to extra-time, a mix of Aussie grit and sheer inspiration from being on the same pitch as Argentina’s No 10. When Aziz Behich, the Australia left-back, slalomed into the box, beating one player after other, Degenek thought to himself: “That was Messi-esque. That was like the big man himself.” With one exception. “He would have scored that for sure and Aziz didn’t.” Messi made the difference again.

“I don’t think we deserved to suffer like we did,” argued Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni. “We had more chances.” Chances that were created by Messi for Lautaro Martinez, who fluffed each of them. In the next break of play, Messi glanced over to get his attention. He applauded encouragingly, seeking to lift his teammate. Another episode of unseen leadership.

At full-time Messi shared a long embrace with his protector and friend, De Paul. After the win against Poland at Stadium 974, the fans hung around for another half an hour after the final whistle to revel in qualification for the knock out stages. This time the players wished to experience it with them, staying out, inviting their friends and families onto the pitch.

Messi revealed he’d been thinking about his wife and kids all game. “From kick-off to the final whistle,” he said. “My children are growing up, they understand what’s going on better and enjoy it more. The rest of the family was with us before at other World Cups and Copas. Thiago, the eldest of my children, was also there but he wasn’t aware of what it means to be at a tournament, where it is win or go home. They are now living it from inside. For me it is something spectacular, we are excited as all Argentinians are.”

James Horncastle

On the streets of Buenos Aires

It was exactly the same back home in Argentina, where thousands upon thousands of fans poured into a fan park in the leafy Plaza Francisco Seeber in the capital, Buenos Aires, to watch their heroes. That’s what they are here, and the most loved of them all, once again, stood taller than the rest.

In fact, there was a massive inflatable Messi outside, that fans flocked to for selfies after the victory.

During the game, the ‘we are not worthy’ arms got their first run out after 65 minutes, after Messi went close to producing an historic World Cup moment. Carrying the ball from his own half, losing it, winning it back and jinking his way to the Australia area… had he finished the move with a goal it would’ve been talked about forevermore. He had already scored by that point, with yet another goal into that far bottom corner. Argentineans love naming places after people, so perhaps that part of the goal will become Leo Messi corner in the future. 

The fan park was not quite as vibrant as you might expect, given how Argentineans have so enthusiastically taken over Qatar, but this huge crowd certainly gave a flavour of how a World Cup lives and breathes in Argentina. 

It certainly was a huge crowd. With just over an hour until kick-off, it took five minutes to walk from the front of the queue to the back, and another 15 from the back to the front once in it. It’s in those queues outside events — the unofficial areas — that you get a crash course in how football feels in South America: people selling bottles of cold water, beer, blown up versions of Messi’s latest Panini sticker, air horns, lottery tickets, knock-off shirts and Milanesa sandwiches — breaded steak in huge white rolls — that could feed an entire family.

In theory there was no beer allowed inside the gates, probably a good idea given the heat. Buenos Aires locals would scoff at mere temperatures of 26 or 27 degrees Celsius — summer gets far more unbearable in this concrete jungle — but it’s probably not advisable to stand among thousands of people with absolutely no shade for two or three hours. It would have been worse with alcohol but, this being Argentina, where there’s a will there’s a way, and there were enough men weaving their way through the crowds selling bottles and cans out of backpacks. 

And when Messi opened the scoring with that classic goal of his, plenty of it was being sprayed around by those closest to the giant screen.  

The celebrations were not exactly wild. Perhaps because this game, rightly or wrongly, had the air of foregone conclusion about it. The Mexico game seven days ago was a real occasion, fresh from their ‘batacazo’ against Saudi Arabia, but they have steadied the ship now, and you can feel it, certainly against a team of Australia’s global standing. And the kind of chants that Argentinean football fans are famous for were, again, surprisingly scarce, but whatever their compatriots were singing in Qatar were echoed here in they key moments, and usually it was Messi they were aimed at. There was one awkward moment, too, when the popular ‘el que no salta es in ingles’ — ‘he who doesn’t jump is English’ — spread from front to back, enthusiastically as ever.

It wasn’t just the people on their feet in the fan parks cheering Messi on, though: ‘vamos Leo! Vamos Argentina!’ cried the DirectTV television commentator during the first half as their country probed for the breakthrough. 

Of course, He soon delivered it. ‘He’ with a capital H, because he’s a God here. “If I answer I swear I’m going to cry,” said Andrea, a teenage fan, after the match. And, sure enough, she immediately broke into tears when describing what Messi means to her and her country. “I love him, with all my heart, it’s a very strong feeling. The love we have for him is very strong and we truly wish him all the best, we hope this time he succeeds” and then the tears got the better of her and she couldn’t say any more.

“Lots of countries want Argentina to win the World Cup, because of him,” adds Andrea’s friend Ana. “All because of him, how he is as a person, his football, his passion. Lots of countries want us to win because of him. Only one person can do that. That’s what he means. He’s incredible.”

He was especially incredible in the final minutes, as he did all he could to make Argentina’s victory more comfortable, only for his team-mates, chiefly Lautaro Martinez, to spurn the great chances he had created. In the end it was another Martinez, Emiliano, or ‘Dibu’ as he is known, who bailed his namesake out with a vital save in the closing seconds. He has a cheeseburger named after him here — the ‘Mega Dibu’ — and it’s selling very well. Even better on Saturday night, surely.

Of course, Messi remains the star of this show and it was he who was the focus of thousands more fans who gathered at the obelisk, slap bang in the centre of Buenos Aires, a good hour’s walk from the fan park.

It is something of a South American Times Square with its animated billboards, the majority of which are dedicated to the national team, and Diego Maradona. The obelisk itself has been lit up at night with highlight videos and ‘Vamos Argentina!’. 

It is where fans congregate in huge numbers after victories like this and the cheers, chants, horns and even fireworks sounded long into the Buenos Aires night. 

Sam Lee

Among the fans in Doha

The ocean of light blue and white Argentina shirts continued to ripple in the stands while chants of ‘el que no salta es in ingles’ pierced the air, long after the full-time whistle had been blown at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium. The players had returned to the dressing room and when they eventually left, rhythmically pounded the windows on the team’s bus.

Lionel Scaloni’s side are one of the favourites to win this tournament and were expected to beat Australia, yet this felt like so much more than a one-off football match. It was closer to a religious experience as thousands of people worshipped their idol. 

Messi’s performance left everybody in a trance they had no chance, or intention, of waking up from — they are desperate to savour every single second of his final appearance at a World Cup.

In a separate section of the ground, away from the real madness, there is a smaller, yet equally passionate, pocket of Argentina supporters. Paula is draped in a flag which she unfurls and holds aloft with her compatriot Maxi before she gushes about Argentina’s magical playmaker.

Paula and Maxi: “For us, Messi is God.”

“What do we think about Messi? We don’t have the words to describe him,” Paula says. “That’s the point. It’s difficult to describe such a person.

“Why did we bow? Because he is like God. For us, he is God.”

A few rows behind Paula and Maxi, Matias is cradling his guitar which he affectionately describes as “like my girlfriend.” Matias has visited 21 countries so far in his life and taken his guitar with him to 19 of them. He begins to pluck the strings and launches into a song which people join in with. The instrument is plastered with stickers including one which says Rosario – Messi’s hometown. 

“I think most of the crowd is here for Messi,” he says. “If Messi doesn’t play, I don’t know if all the people want to go here because Messi is everything. He is one of the best things we have in the world.

“I tell people everyone knows Jesus, everyone knows religion and then the names of Maradona and Messi. Everyone has Maradona and Messi in their mind.”

Argentina fans Matias (and his guitar)

On the outskirts of the stadium, Argentina fans interrupt a television reporter’s segment by dancing in front of the cameras and twirling flags through the air. Young children wearing Messi shirts dart around, while The Athletic spots a father cradling a baby. The sooner you are blessed by Messi’s dancing on the pitch and converted to this faith, the better. 

The party is in full swing at the Al Riffa Mall of Qatar which is situated nearby. There is a singer and a backing band up on stage who perform a variety of songs including ‘Voulez Vouz’ by legendary Swedish group ABBA and Gypsy Kings’ classic Bamboleo prompts the audience to go wild. Messi might have been born in Argentina, but he belongs to the world and people have travelled from everywhere to witness his sermon. 

Abdul Haseeb of the All Kerala Messi Fans club

Abdul Haseeb had flown over with his friends from India to watch Messi play for the first time. Haseeb belongs to the All Kerala Messi Fans club and he estimates there are “around 30,000 members.” 

Pupol lives in China and has always been an admirer of Messi.

“The first time I watched Messi was in Russia (at the 2018 World Cup), the second time was in 2019 at Barcelona and the third time in 2021 in Brazil for the Copa America. I have also gone to Messi’s hometown, Rosario,” Pupol reveals.

“I’m a super fan of Barcelona. I have supported them for more than 20 years. In 2004 Messi joined the first team and I was 10 years old. So I started to support him. And he brought us happiness and success. I love the Argentina team and I love the Argentina fans too.”

China-based Messi fan Pupol with The Athletic’s Jay Harris

Brett and Susie were gutted Australia got eliminated. The couple, who live in Doha, were trying to go home but kept getting stopped by Argentina fans who wanted to take a photo of their strange accessory – an inflatable kangaroo called Kev which has its own Instagram page and has attended several matches at the World Cup. 

Australia are 38th in FIFA’s rankings and only an avoidable error from goalkeeper Mat Ryan prevented them from taking Argentina into extra-time. Australia were unable to reach the quarter-finals for the first time in their history but, despite that disappointment, Brett and Susie were in awe of the opposition fans and the atmosphere they generated.

“The sound was fabulous,” Susie says. “We were at the Iran v USA match and that was constant noise whereas this just came at the end and you got that beautiful crescendo. It was emotional in many different ways.”

Graham Arnold’s side already faced the gargantuan task of stopping Messi and the amount of Argentina fans inside the ground made it even harder. They massively outnumbered Australia, but why are there so many of them compared to other teams too?

“Because we are crazy,” Matias says. “Everybody talks about how Argentina has the best crowd in the world. Maybe people have not spent anything for 5/10 years to come here.”

Pedro and his wife Flor, who are both from Argentina but now live in Dubai, offer a different explanation.

“That is how we live soccer in Argentina,” Pedro says. “We lost three finals. Two in the Copa America (2015, 2016) and one in the World Cup (2014). After so many years of struggle, this can bind us together again.

“The players feel the flag just like we do. So we are like them and they are like us. We feel represented by this team. Also, the (political) situation in Argentina is quite complicated so this is an escape. ”

Messi is the epitome of that special connection. He has carried the country’s weight on his shoulders for nearly two decades and this represents his last shot to lead them to World Cup glory. 

“He is joy and he is hope for everyone.” Pedro says. “He represents us in the best way possible. He is an example for kids. You cannot say anything bad about him. He’s just the best player and the best person as well.”

Jay Harris


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